31 August 1997: the Death of Diana, Princess of Wales

It used to be said that every person could say that they knew where they were when they heard the news that US President, John F Kennedy, had been assassinated. Nowadays, they can say the same about when they heard the news that Diana, Princess of Wales had died after a car crash in a Paris underpass.

Diana, Princess of Wales was the former wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne. She suffered fatal injuries when the car she was travelling in crashed into the thirteenth pillar in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. The car was being chased by paparazzi determined to get the one million pound shot of her and Dodi Fayed, her new boyfriend. Dodi and the driver, Henri Paul, died on impact. Diana was brought out of the wrecked car alive, but she suffered a cardiac arrest soon after and her internal injuries proved unsurvivable. Her bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, employed by the Al Fayed family, suffered serious injuries but survived the accident, he was the only person in the car who had worn a seatbelt.

Diana, Princess of Wales, 30 August 1997
Diana, Princess of Wales, 30 August 1997

Diana had spent the summer enjoying a new romance with Dodi and the global press demand for photos was immense. A crowd of photographers had gathered at the front of The Ritz, where Diana and Dodi had dined. They had decided to move on to another Al Fayed Paris property and left via the rear exit of the hotel. A decoy car was to set off from the front of the hotel but the paparazzi were not fooled, those on motorcycles gave pursuit. In the aftermath of the crash, seven paparazzi were arrested.

Henri Paul’s autopsy blood tests proved to be three times over the French legal limit for alcohol. Conspiracy theorists and there are many, along with countless Diana murder theories, dispute this. Trevor Rees-Jones and another Al Fayed bodyguard, Kes Wingfield, insisted that they would have been alerted if they had witnessed any sign of intoxication of Henri Paul. However, what is certain is that the car that the four were travelling in was being driven at least twice the speed limit.

Diana, Princess of Wales was declared dead at 4 a.m. at the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital, Paris. There were other hospitals closer to the accident site but she was transferred to that hospital for its expertise in chest trauma.

Charles, Prince of Wales and Diana’s two sisters, Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes travelled to Paris to escort Diana’s coffin back to England where it was placed in the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. The night before her funeral her body was moved to her home at Kensington Palace. Kensington Palace was the focal point of the public’s grief after Diana’s death and it was where people came to pay their respects, leaving flowers in remembrance.

Kensington Palace Charles, William Harry 1997
Kensington Palace Charles, William Harry 1997

Diana’s funeral was held on Saturday 6 September 1997 at Westminster Abbey with two thousand invited guests. An estimated one million people lined the route in London to witness her coffin, draped in a Royal Standard, being taken to the service on a gun carriage. She was escorted on her journey to the Abbey by her two sons, Princes William and Harry, Prince Charles, Prince Philip and her brother, Charles, Earl Spencer. It had a global television audience of around 2 billion people.

Diana's coffin
The coffin bearing Diana, Princess of Wales

Her funeral cortège was later driven to her family estate, Althorp, in Northamptonshire, where she was buried on an island in the centre of an ornamental lake. On the journey north, members of the public threw flowers at the hearse resulting in the hearse having to stop for a short while to remove flowers from the windscreen. Her burial was private and attended by close family.

16 thoughts on “31 August 1997: the Death of Diana, Princess of Wales

  1. Yes, I remember. First, I remember watching her wedding to Charles on a tiny black-and-white tv in my college dorm room. I learned of her death that next morning when I came home with my new boyfriend (now husband) and picked up my newspaper from the box at the top of the driveway. I was shocked. Shocked!

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    1. I worked nights in a care home for the elderly. I watched the news all night, from the first reports of an accident and possible broken bones to the death announcement. My husband dropped the children off to me at 7.30 a.m. and I went home and bought the Sunday papers that did not know. They are stored in my loft, along with my 9/11 newspapers.

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  2. I most definitely remember this. Diana was one of the first “celebrities” I ever really looked up to because I was struck by her kindness, compassion, and the simple fact that she spoke from the heart.
    The morning she died, I was sitting at the breakfast table laughing and joking around with my mom and sister, like we always did Sunday mornings. Then my dad came home from church with the newspaper and dropped it on the table and we saw the horrible headline with her stunning photo.
    I was only 12 but it was so sad (and scary) realizing that someone who was so good and so pure could be taken away so suddenly and tragically. I will also never forget watching the funeral and my heart absolutely bleeding for William and Harry. I remember tearing up when I saw the envelope Harry placed among the flowers that said, “Mummy.”
    I’m so glad her boys have grown up to be such upstanding men. True testaments to her legacy.

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  3. I remember watching it on Sunday morning before church, when they were speculating that she might possibly still be alive – after such a horrific crash, it seemed doubtful. I guess they were just waiting for the official news. We have a six hour time difference here.

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  4. I’d add John Lennon’s murder to the list of memorables. I remember hearing about Diana the morning after the accident. We had returned from holiday late the previous night and switched on the first TV news we had seen in a fortnight. We knew someone had died; it took awhile to realise who it was. I think, after sadness, my overwhelming initial thought was “what a tragic waste.”

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  5. The funeral cortege taking her home stopped more than once to remove flowers form its path. People lined bridges over the motorway to drop more flowers. I watched on the TV in disbelief at the emotion some people felt.

    She was never part of my life (although I once shared a flat with a school friend of hers and so learnt the secret gossip), but her death seemed to change Britain. A clear example is that, after her funeral it has become commonplace to leave flowers outside a house or at a roadside where death has occurred. Before then, it was not really done.

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  6. I was holidaying with my mom when it happened and even if I am not good on celebrities I perfectly remember the new announcement on the tv of a bar outside a castle close to Prague we had just visited.

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  7. I remember where I was when we heard of the accident. We were in the car driving home from a short stay in Carmel, California. A special report broke into the regular radio programming and reported the tragedy. While I was deeply touched by Diana’s passing my wife was devastated. She adored Diana and all that the princess stood for.
    It seems that we most often remember where we were or what we were doing when we learn of tragedies. I was in Mrs. Campbell’s 4th grade classroom when I learned of JFK’s assassination. The school was closed and the children sent home.
    I was at my family home in San Mateo, California when I learned of Robert Kennedy’s assassination.
    I was at work at an office building on 6th Street in San Francisco when I heard about the Challenger explosion.
    I was dressing for work on 9/11 when my wife called me to the television. Driving to work, my son who was watching it all unfold called me with updates. I remember with some bitterness having to work through the day, the management not allowing us to leave even though no business was being conducted.

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    1. 9:11 I’d taken work in WH Smith’s (a large newspaper/stationery/bookstore chain in the afternoons, I was on the front cash desk. The only newspaper that covered it was the very late edition of the evening standard (in the briefest form if I remember correctly). My manager kept walking into the shop to give me updates – and then of course, so did the customers. It was before I had a mobile phone and after work that evening my sister joined us. She had lived in New York/Manhatten for 10 years and had several friends who worked in the World Trade Centre. Some were safe, some didn’t make it. A terrible time.

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